Chairman's Desk

Vaccine arrival is a jab in the arm for political leaders

On Tuesday, 90-year-old Margaret Keenan became the first patient outside of clinical trials to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, a few short days after the U.K. became the first country to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Keenan’s jab brought with it a collective sigh of relief from every corner of the world as the moment we have all impatiently awaited arrived at last.

Throughout the British Isles, the deepest sigh of relief came perhaps from Downing Street, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s political fortunes were reversed with the prick of a needle.

After nine months of a gruelling, unrelenting and frequently mismanaged battle with the pandemic, Johnson’s Conservatives have finally delivered Britons their first victory. What’s more, the start of vaccinations gave British Tories an opportunity to champion the National Health Service — the crown jewel in the welfare state their party is so often accused of wanting to dismantle.

Indeed, Johnson wasted no time in appearing at a London vaccination centre in front of the NHS logo, celebrating his country’s status as the first nation to receive the vaccine. This is a distinction he is unlikely to allow his party, his voters or his opposition in Parliament to forget anytime soon.

The victory arrives in the nick of time. This weekend sees his other priority project — Brexit — sliding toward the cliff edge with no deal in sight.

But if Johnson is the poster child for politicians riding the high of a vaccine — perhaps all the way to a general election — he is certainly not the only one.

In capitals around the world, political leaders have, with varying degrees of success, pinned their own political fortunes to the arrival and successful rollout of a vaccine. Who can blame them? After almost a year of unrelenting bad news, what politician wouldn’t want to own the solution, regardless of their limited role in it?

In the United States, President Trump has for months promised to develop a vaccine at “warp speed.” To his credit, many laughed when he said we would have a vaccine by the holidays

This week, Trump was elated to emerge from his self-imposed confinement in the White House to posture in front of his “Operation Warp Speed” signs. While he celebrated his incredible, fantastic, amazing efforts to bring a vaccine to American shores —single-handedly, it seems — he stunningly ignored the news that the total number of infected Americans passed 15 million.

The video introducing the event was an opportunity for Trump and his team to manipulate and decontextualize the words of vaccine timeline skeptics, like Dr. Fauci. In mocking his naysayers among the country’s top public health officials, the president managed to further undermine respect and trust in the very people responsible for rolling out a vaccine in the coming months.

Unsurprisingly, the people at Pfizer and Moderna — who we actually have to thank for the vaccine — declined the invitation to join Trump’s grotesque performance, which inevitably declined into bellyaching about the election that was stolen from him.

Befitting the spoiled brat he has proven to be, the president was unable for even an hour to recognize the struggles or celebrate the achievements of anyone but himself. So it goes.

If Johnson’s vaccine politicking constituted a shot across his opponents’ bow, Trump’s was a volley of cannons straight at their hull.

At home, it remains to be seen how our own political leaders will fare in their vaccine politics. Thus far, Trudeau and his cabinet seem reluctant to tie their fortunes to the successful rollout of a vaccine, except to say that every Canadian will be inoculated in due course.

After a confusing and rocky start, the Liberals seemed to get their sea legs this week with the news that Canada will become the third nation to begin inoculating its citizens. But the hard work of securing more doses and rolling them out has only just begun.

With a potential election looming just around the corner, Trudeau had better hope that his team sticks the landing — because there is no inoculation that can keep a minority government alive forever.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on December 13, 2020.

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